From beginning to end, Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” toys with our expectations. It doesn’t count on our being familiar with the original sci-fi classic — this version certainly stands on its own — but those who know a little something about the older film will find endless delight in the twisting and remodeling that goes on in the new one.
Burton has been careful to indicate this is not a remake so much as a “revisiting.” It has the same basic outline of the 1968 film: Earth astronaut crashes on a futuristic planet on which apes rule and humans are animals. Some other details remain the same, but essentially, this is a different film altogether. The surprise ending is still a surprise, but it’s not the one from the original film.
The astronaut, Leo Davidson, is played by Mark Wahlberg, whose skill at playing quiet, reluctant heroes is now nearly perfect. Leo’s aim is to get off the planet; saving his fellow humans from enslavement is secondary. Wahlberg is an altogether human hero, with flaws and everything. He has a character arc, which is more than you can say for most people who appear in movies this time of year.
Contrasting Leo in the selflessness department is Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), an ape with the unpopular belief that humans have souls and should not be treated savagely. The two of them flee from the evil, militaristic Thade (Tim Roth); the comic slave-trader Limbo (Paul Giamatti); and the brutish but religious Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan). There are pursuits and battles and plans and traps, and a tiny bit of romance.
I can’t think of a better person to have directed this film than Tim Burton. His touch is sly and whimsical. This is a serious science-fiction adventure, but Burton is still cognizant of the fact that monkeys are funny. “Planet of the Apes” takes itself just seriously enough to warrant respect and attention, but not so seriously it chokes on itself. It also avoids the preachiness that infested the original.
The cameo by Charlton Heston as the Alpha Male ape (he played the astronaut in the original), while full of inside jokes (including an anti-gun tirade), is nonetheless one of the best movie-star cameos in recent memory. It works on both levels.
Burton creates an amazingly believable world. Rick Baker’s makeup effects and Colleen Atwood’s costumes are shockingly good. The apes also act as though they’ve only been walking upright and ruling the planet for a few generations. They run like apes, beat their chests in false bravado, and write with their feet.
It is a demented mind indeed that could take a topic with such potential for cheesiness and make it seem so convincing. Here’s hoping more minds as demented as Burton’s collaborate on more films. The summer blockbuster season just got smarter, cooler and classier.
A- (; )
In 2011, I reconsidered this movie for my "Re-Views" column at Film.com.